Verbs born of names

What do the following verbs — all (except one) in fairly common modern usage — have in common? Clue: they all started their lives in the English language with capital letters (and a few of them still carry their initial cap in deference to their namesakes). Can you think of any others?

To Fletcherize: to chew your food until it is reduced to a finely divided, liquefied mass. The masticating verb got its name from the American nutritionist Horace Fletcher, who prescribed this healthy practice. Both the verb and the noun entered the English language in the early 1900s.

To galvanize: To shock or excite (someone) into taking action. Named after Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), a professor of anatomy at Bologna who discovered galvanism in 1792 while running currents through the legs of dead frogs. (Galvanism is electricity produced by chemical action.)

To gerrymander: (American English): to arrange political divisions in disregard of natural boundaries so as to give one party an advantage in elections. The noun and verb, dating from 1812, are a portmanteau combining parts of the names Elbridge Gerry (the governor of Massachusetts at the time) and salamander (the lizard-like amphibian). Gerry was lampooned when his party redistricted the state in a blatant bid to preserve an Antifederalist majority. One sprawling Essex County district resembled a salamander, and a newspaper editor dubbed it the “Gerrymander”.

To guillotine: “The name of the machine in which the axe descends in grooves from a considerable height so that the stroke is certain and the head instantly severed from the body.” [Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, January 1793]. This French instrument of execution was named after the French physician Joseph Guillotin (1738-1814), who as deputy to the National Assembly in 1789 proposed, for humanitarian and efficiency reasons, that capital punishment be carried out by beheading quickly and cleanly on a machine, which was built in 1791 and first used the following year. The noun was born the same year as the machine; the verb is first attested in 1794.

To lynch: to inflict severe (but not deliberately fatal) bodily punishment (on someone) without legal sanction. Dating from 1835, the verb derives from an earlier Lynch law (1811), which was likely named after William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Virginia, who led a vigilance committee in about 1780 to keep order there during the Revolution. Other sources trace the name to Charles Lynch (1736-1796), a Virginia magistrate who fined and imprisoned Tories in his district in about 1782, but the connection to him is less likely.

To mesmerize: to capture the complete attention of (someone); to transfix. Named after Franz Mesmer (1734 –1815), a German physician with an interest in astronomy who theorized that there was a natural energetic transference that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects that he called animal magnetism.

To pasteurize: to subject products — milk, wine etc. — to a process of partial sterilization, especially one involving heat treatment or irradiation, thus making the product safe for consumption and improving its keeping quality. Named after Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), the French chemist and bacteriologist who invented the process.

To Shanghai: to drug a man unconscious and ship him as a sailor. This American English verb, first used in 1854, derived from the practice of kidnapping men to fill the crews of ships making extended voyages, such as to the Chinese seaport of Shanghai.

To bogart (informal American): To selfishly appropriate or keep (something, especially a cannabis cigarette). First attested in the movie Easy Rider.

There are, of course, other more modern verbs deriving from brand names (rather than place or people names) that have insinuated themselves into our lingo. Notable examples are “to Google”, “to Skype”, and “to FaceTime”, and earlier 20th-century brand-verbs include “to hoover”, “to xerox”, “to taser”, “to photoshop” and “to rollerblade”. Read Glossophilia’s earlier post about common nouns that started out as trademarked names: Brand name or generic noun? 

Update: a couple of additions in today (thank you, Candice):

To bowdlerize: To remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective. Named after Dr Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), who published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare in 1818.

To mercerize: to treat (cotton fabric or thread) under tension with caustic alkali to impart strength and lustre. Named after John Mercer (died 1866), who is said to have invented the process.


Hat tip to Lil for the idea. And thank you, Loretta, for Bogart.

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